World Tai Chi Day is coming this Saturday. Thought I’d reflect on that, just a bit. I first studied Wu Style Tai Chi about thirty five years ago, under Hawkins Cheung, who learned it directly from the son of the founder. Hawkins is a senior Wing Chun practitioner who learned directly from Yip Man, and his approach to learning Tai Chi’s combat applications was deliciously simple: he attacked his teacher every lesson. And out of the bruises and bumps, he learned. That’s pretty serious.
I was studying Kali with Danny Inosanto at the time I met Hawkins, and befriended Hawkins, and decided that this was a rare opportunity to learn, and shifted over (they shared a school at the time) and for the next three years, there I was 2-3 times a week, practicing every day. It takes about a year to learn the complete 108 movements (you learn about one move per class) and I really wanted it.
You see, the Tai Chi form is NOT “Tai Chi.” It is…the form. Learning it is like building a bucket. What you want is what goes IN the bucket, the specific feelings, perceptions, sensitivities, balances, and internal-external connections that you can only learn actually touching hands with a teacher. In this it is much like the sexual magic work of the Quodoshka I studied in the Deer Tribe. The theory was great, but without the Firewomen I actually worked with, it would have been impossible to advance.
Without Push-Hands and actual combatives practice, I would have had nothing but the external form. Now…don’t get me wrong. The reason Tai Chi is the most popular martial art in the world is that even if you don’t Push Hands, even if you don’t have the slightest interest in the martial applications (which, btw, are very Silat-like), it still has much to offer.
The benefits of Tai Chi are very similar to the benefits of joint mobility drills. And that means HEALTH, which is far more important than mere “fitness”. In fact, health contains within it the roots of generalized “fitness.” They are circles that overlap but are not concentric. Fitness is “how much, how far, how fast, how many.) How far can you run in X time. How much can you lift, how high can you jump, etc. etc. There is no “generalized fitness” really–it is all specific to some activity you desire to perform. (That said, there are definitely activities like FlowFit or TacFit that provide such a beautiful mixture of fitness qualities that they come pretty close to “generalized fitness.)
Health is a different thing. How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? How well did you sleep? What’s your mood? How does your body feel, in general? Like a healthy animal? Do you stretch, twist, and move spontaneously during the day? Animals do. Appetite for food, rest, sex and exercise? Is the “kid” inside you still alive and well? Can you move your body in such a way as to process negative emotions and trigger positive ones at will? How often do you get sick? What is your overall energy level? How is your balance?
Two weeks ago I was with an older friend. He misjudged a step and fell. Without thinking, I reached out to steady him. I was wearing a heavy backpack, and could not control my own balance perfectly, and in slow-motion, we fell to the ground. I positioned myself under him to cushion him, collapsing with control, trying to find something, some way to break our fall, thinking in that syrupy fast-motion you experience under stress if you stay calm. Could find nothing to hold onto, but managed to get my left arm under me to act as a brake. My right knee was twisting fiercely as he fell atop me. We reached the ground safely.
He said I saved him. I could feel it in my knee–the stress had twisted it a little out of true. I still feel it a little, two weeks later. But…we were both fine. That wasn’t “fitness”. How in the world do you train for something like that? It was just “health.” Tai Chi contributed the following things:
- Relaxed perception.
- Instant reactions.
- Lower body strength
- Flexible tendons (otherwise I’d have torn my knee out, I kid you not)
- Coordination (for a few seconds, our two bodies became one, with my mind in control of both)
- Proper breathing under stress. Controls fear, connects the entire body, allows instinct and tactical mind to operate simultaneously.
- Spinal flexibility.
- Relaxation under stress. Critical to be able to fall safely.
There is more, including things I never consciously knew I was learning. Many of these qualities can be gained simply through patterned motion and daily connection with your body (processing toxic emotions, removing “sensory motor amnesia”). They are available if you will just begin to move, and give yourself the gift of connecting your animal and human selves.
The Tai Chi Form I recorded twenty-five years ago, available free on Youtube, can teach many of these things, and I will answer any questions I can about any issues you have in connection with it. PLEASE, if you have no daily discipline, begin to integrate some practice. I call Tai Chi a “perfect template”, one of those exercises which, if mastered, convey wonderful, broad-based benefits beyond conscious competence.
Happy World Tai Chi Day!
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